As COVID restrictions have all but gone and confidence rises in the viability of major sports events, we have seen a lot of major sponsorship announcements. Gambling (in the US), crypto, and digital entertainment brands are relative newcomers to the sponsorship world and they are laying down some serious cash... which is obviously hard for rights-holders to resist.
Given my background in both sponsorship and research/insight, my natural first thought is “I wonder how they’re going to measure the success of this partnership?” As Crypto.com balks on its UEFA commitment, I’m still struggling with the numbers on how Spotify can justify $60m a year to FC Barcelona, but I digress...
The truth is that most sponsorship executives are at least slightly afraid of properly measuring the performance of their sponsorships. They’re usually quite clear on strategic intent, but a bit woolly on the specifics of success measurement.
The Hidden Truth
Sponsorship Directors often know more about sponsorship than their Brand or Marketing superiors (as they should), so they can often get away with showing some supposedly impressive exposure or engagement metrics and call it success. How many sponsorship execs or agencies assess what they’ve delivered and conclude/report that ‘this isn’t working’? It’s not unusual for a sponsorship (or any marketing initiative) to fall short of its intent, so why is this so rarely reported? I’ve been there, seen it, done it. Post-rationalisation is the norm.
The problem with the typical ‘rose-tinted specs’ approach is that it is purely defensive. A performance measurement system is supposed to inform on the success or failure of performance with the intent to improve performance going forward. A defensive approach - especially in sponsorship - achieves the exact opposite.
Defensive measurement is designed to make sure things stay the same. “Oh look, that was good. This sponsorship did what it was supposed to do. We were right to do what we did. We should keep doing the same thing with the same people.“ Job secure. Agency retained. Nothing learned. Mediocrity assured.
The Better Way
As young modern brands and organisations step into the fray, I hope they’re taking a more mature adult approach to sponsorship performance measurement. The childish strategic position would simply state ‘We’re going to use this sponsorship to increase brand awareness and drive engagement with new prospective customers.’ OK, but what are the specific brand strategy-linked metrics that will determine success? Will they be measured along the way, and can those interim measurements be used to demonstrate agility and tweak the activation plan?
Sometimes - usually with more established brands - this happens as it should. However, too often there is a fear that the measurement will only be used to expose poor decisions and incompetence. Or worse, to justify budget and headcount cuts. While the sponsorship is being measured, it is the agency and/or sponsorship execs that are being judged. This totally misses the point.
Sponsorship measurement must be treated more like a science lab than a courtroom. When a scientist tests the impact of a new drug compound on a lab rat, the scientist doesn’t get fired if the drug isn’t efficacious. Instead, the results are treated as insight to improve the next execution. The knowledge and security of this approach gives the scientist (or the sponsorship exec/agency) the freedom to make changes and put forth a better, improved plan.
The even more mature and evolved approach is when the measurement framework itself is discussed and debated BEFORE the activation plan is set. This debate should occur not only within the sponsorship team, but with the wider marketing team and any involved external agencies. This has several distinct benefits:
1) Buy-In - when all stakeholders are involved in the up-front measurement debate, they are all essentially bought in to the partnership. Any obvious strategic challenges or issues are cleared up early and the investment responsibility is shared. The whole project is now being measured, not just a few individuals.
2) Prioritisation - the early framework discussion assures that the strategic priorities are clear and agreed before the activation plan is set and spend is committed. The last thing you want is an agreed list of 5 objectives but with widely differing views on which are most important.
3) Measurable - this discussion also assures that you are going to judge this sponsorship on things that can actually be measured. I’ve seen plenty of instances where a small-ish brand wants to ‘improve perception’ without a clear idea of how that will be defined.
4) Agility - when this framework discussion happens early, you build in valuable agility that can be employed when the unexpected comes into play. If the board mandates a 10% budget cut, you know exactly what your outcome priorities are as well as where you can and can’t afford to cut.
The broad lesson here is to get out in front of the measurement early. The sooner you start the process and the more stakeholders you involve in establishing the measurement framework, the less you have to fear. The measurement and insight become your friend, not your jury.
On the other hand, if you wait until the campaign is finished - or even started - this is like giving the students an exam before they’ve had the lectures... and then letting them grade their own papers based on their own opinions. They’re sure to get a passing grade, but they haven’t learned shit.
Another related ugly truth is that sponsorship can sometimes be the unwanted stepchild of the marketing plan. It often doesn’t have the budget that advertising does, and the fact is that many Marketing heads don’t really understand or buy into how or if it works.
This is partly because few sponsorships lend themselves to clear econometric models that can show a legit ROI. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work! In fact, I’m one of the ones that says sponsorship - done properly - works BETTER than other traditional marketing. It’s just harder to measure.
My point here isn’t just to say, “you people need to start measuring your sponsorships better.” That’s been said a million times already. What I’m suggesting is that sponsorship measurement needs a makeover. It should be viewed and approached from a different perspective. To use a buzz word from days gone by, a paradigm shift is in order.
So, stop indulging this phobia by lying to yourself about why and how you measure sponsorship performance. Rather, take a step to the side and view your measurement rationale from a different angle. Get started on this early and sell the idea that you will be measuring for the purpose of strategic improvement, not professional judgement. This brings a true win-win approach. It makes the difficult/sensitive questions easier for everyone, and it allows you to focus your fear and anxiety on more rational things... like heights, and snakes, and buttons. Or something more real, like nomophobia.
Bruce Cook is a Consultant in Sport Sponsorship, Marketing & Insight